GOAL-SETTING and the power of saying I WILL

A unique goal-setting intervention implemented by Professor Michaéla Schippers and supported by RSM’s I WILL movement has created significant improvement in the performance and crucially, the retention of RSM’s first-year Dutch Bachelors students.

Launched at RSM in academic year 2011-2012, this goal-setting intervention has been creating positive change for the future in the form of more focused and successful students who are also more confident and self-directed. It is now a required part of the part of the General Business Skills course for RSM’s first year BSc Bedrijfskunde students. And it’s a relatively brief, scalable solution for Dutch universities, in which the drop-out rate for first year Bachelors students hovers around 50%, with a concomitant loss of revenue that runs into millions of euros annually.

Necessity: the mother of in(ter)vention

“My main research is about reflexivity in teams – the way teams (in an organisational setting) reflect on and learn from experience,” says Professor Dr. Schippers, Endowed Professor in Behaviour and Performance Management, a Founder of the Reflexivity Network and Scientific Director of the Erasmus Centre of Career and Study Success (E=CS2) . In her work with teams, Prof. Schippers has discovered that “without individual goals that fit with the organisation’s mission and vision, there is just no use – the organisational ‘vision statement’ stays in a drawer.” 

The same insight could be applied to first-year participants of the RSM BSc in Bedrijfskunde. They were confronted in Academic Year 2012-2013 with a new policy from the Dutch government, meant to weed out the less motivated amongst them.

While Dutch Bachelors programmes had traditionally taken a more laissez-faire approach, there was suddenly, driven by governmental budget cuts amongst other issues, the imperative amongst Dutch universities, including Erasmus University Rotterdam,  for students to buckle down and earn more ECTS (European Credit Transfer System) study credits in their first Bachelors year.  Without 60 ECTS they cannot move on, in this case to the second year of the three-year RSM programme. 

This policy is meant to circumvent the costs associated with the high drop-out rate of Dutch Bachelors students, which hovers around 50% at most universities in the Netherlands – and RSM is no exception. “Very practically, this is good for the Dutch university system which loses tuition and governmental monies when students drop out,” says Dr. Schippers.  But it also short-changes young people who may not yet be clear on just what path they should take in life. And the need to raise the ECTS to 60 from 40 caused stress not just for students, but for programme staff, who had to find a new approach fast.

“I’d found an article on how goal-setting helps students, and sent it to programme management, saying this was an evidence-based intervention and might be something to try,” she says. The interest from the Bachelors programme was virtually instantaneous. “They asked me to find out if this was something we could use at our school as well.”

The result was Prof. Schippers’ implementation of the goal-setting intervention with 800 students in September 2011.

How does it work?

Know thyself (then say I WILL)

The goal-setting intervention is a deceptively simple, but often deeply revealing three-stage online writing exercise that begins about three weeks after the start of the first Bachelors trimester.

(1)    Participants are asked to react to a series of questions relating to their ideas, and plans for changes in what they want to learn, their social relations, work, etc. Then participants outline their ideal future as well as their worst possible future. With this self-knowledge, they define and prioritise 6-8 future goals.

(2)    Participants describe each goal’s impact and create concrete, detailed plans to achieve these goals.

(3)    They then create a public statement and commit to a specific goal.

In this three-stage process, a critical aspect of success is the last stage: making a public commitment to your goal. “If you decide to stop smoking, great; but if you tell your friends you’ll stop smoking it’s obviously going to be more effective,” says Prof. Schippers.

This is where I WILL, RSM’s community of commitment, has plays a distinctive role in the  success of this goal-setting intervention.

The power of saying ‘I WILL’ can be demonstrated by the engagement of RSM Bachelors students in contrast to those of the  University of Amsterdam (UvA), which has taken on Prof. Schippers’ intervention but has made Stage 3 – the public commitment to a goal – voluntary . “At the UvA we obviously can’t use I WILL, so we created something called My Goal – the same type of portrait with a statement,” she says.  The voluntary nature of the My Goal photoshoot resulted in only 45 of the 1200 UvA Bachelors students showing up to make a public declaration.  Initial assessments  comparing the goal-setting success of UvA students visa-a-vis the RSM Bachelors and  I WILL, has indicated a more limited level of achievement in the Amsterdam students. 

 I WILL has been embedded in RSM since 2010 (and its positive link with goal-setting has been made since 2011): a community initiative that now features more than 10,000 I WILL statements from the students, researchers, staff and external relations of the school. Unlike My Goal at UvA, I WILL is  iconic, recognisable, and a distinctive feature of RSM culture.

Results: cool stuff

After that first trimester in Academic Year 2011-2012, it was clear that something positive had happened from the many emails Prof. Schippers received from programme management. “We sensed that this cohort was doing much better than previous cohorts,” she says. “I wasn’t sure at the time that goal-setting had made the big difference, but at the end of the year we did the math: our calculations showed that the intervention had led to a 20% improvement overall in number of credits (ECTS) as well as retention,” she says.

That meant that about 77 more BSc Bedrijfskunde students stayed the course, got their 40 ECTS – it has since risen to a mandatory 60 ECTS -  and were able to move on in their studies. “Some groups didn’t show that much improvement, but in other groups it was a lot higher – for example for male ethnic minorities there was a 50% improvement. The gender and ethnicity gaps decreased, and struggling students started to do much better.”

That level of improvement has been consistent over the past 6 years, meaning that  around 450 students who might otherwise have dropped out, have finished their first year of studies. In addition they will have experienced other advantages identified with having a purpose in life: less stress, more confidence, more clarity, and a better immune system.

‘After Year 1, the gender gap closed by 98%, while the ethnicity gap closed by 38%, rising to 93% after Year 2. Ethnic minority males earned 44% more credits, and their retention rate increased 54%. Whereas the meta-analysis of Robbins et al. (2009) concluded that most interventions show relatively modest effects, we found that our intervention cohorts showed substantial increases, ranging from 5 to 44% for various subgroups in terms of academic performance and from 10 to 54% in terms of retention rates, compared with the pre-intervention cohorts.’ -  From paper ‘A scalable goal-setting intervention closes both the gender and ethnic minority achievement gap’ - Michaéla C Schippers, Ad W A Scheepers & Jordan B Peterson, Palgrave Communications May 2015  www.palgrave-journals.com/articles/palcomms201514

Former project coordinator Jade van Zeeland, an organisational psychologist who took on management of the many day to day demands of the goal-setting intervention in May 2015, discovered something interesting during content analysis of the goals:  “The biggest surprise when I first came on and started looking at results was that goal-setting isn’t a super-logical thing. We looked at the kind of goals students wrote – academic, career, material – and then we put that in the regression analysis. What surprised me was that the goal itself didn’t matter! Simply by setting a goal they had a 20% increase in their grades. That was so eye opening for me. It doesn’t matter what you want in life. You just have to have a goal to experience more success. It’s cool stuff, right?”

Goals = Purpose

While it is not always immediately clear to new Bachelors students precisely why they have to engage in the goal setting intervention in their first trimester, hindsight is often 20/20. “Most of the students who benefit tend to be the ones who, like me, just went to university because it was expected of them – they come to their Bachelor programme and have no idea what they are doing or what they are going to do,” says Robert Vlug, a 3rd year RSM BSc Bedrijfskunde student.

During their third year in the programme, students make the choice to do an internship, exchange programme or a minor – including the option to be a Mentor for BSc students in their first trimester. [With 800 students in the BSc Bedrijfskunde each year, there are around 15-20 mentoring students who take on several groups of first year students.]

That was the choice made by Robert, who actually found his path through mentoring. But had goal setting helped him in his first year?

“The goal setting intervention helped me to focus more on the things I like,” he says. “I realised that teaching – which is what mentoring is – is very rewarding, and that I would like to teach.  I have considered getting a doctorate just so I can teach, and do research on the side; I know it’s the other way around, but I would like to invert that!” he says.

Robert points to his own I WILL statements as an indication of his progress through goal-setting. “I have two I WILL statements. The first was a complete joke - ‘I WILL therefore I am’ – because I couldn’t take I WILL or the goal-setting very seriously at the time, and had no idea what I wanted. My second I WILL statement – ‘I WILL teach the next generation to be better’ – is much more in line with my goals, and the fact that I actually know what I want to do now.”

This is why the intervention is so positive when it comes at the  beginning of a student’s higher education journey, says Prof. Schippers – and thanks to the success with first-year Bachelors, a similar initiative is in development for second and third-year students. “Many Bachelors students come to RSM with no idea why they chose a study or where they are going. Through goal-setting they get on the right path. And it’s one of those interventions that has a recursive effect, so you can keep making small changes and adjusting your goals throughout your studies and your life.” 

In fact goal-setting may have a life-extending benefit: Prof. Schippers says that there is research that predicts who will live to be 100-plus. “Science journalist Dan Buettner has looked at the variables that contribute to living beyond 100, and having a purpose in life – a goal - is one of the main factors.”